Monday, 28 February 2011

260 days without government: such a bad thing?

After six months, Belgians may be wondering why they need a government
It never ceases to amaze me how ungrateful we British can be to a nation that gave the world waffles, fries, praline, Tintin, liver pâté, Früli beer, Henri Pirenne, Soulwax and the humble sprout; but Belgium continues to receive a bad press in this country.

And the sheer frequency of unchallenged non-truths and irrelevancies that make their way into print is really quite shameful. 'It's not a real country!' they cry. 'They don't even speak the same language!' others are known to shriek. Well, quite right, but then neither do the Swiss, Canadians, Russians, Chinese or Indians. I'm not sure many would argue their homelands aren't 'proper' countries.

Belgian history, too, is often the subject of some pretty whacky interpretations. The last time the press were egging on the Vlamingen and Walons to part company, there was no shortage of hacks making it known that, anyway, Belgium was 'artificially' cobbled together by the Allies in 1814 as a buffer state between France and her eastern neighbours.

What utter codswallop. Belgium came into being in 1830 as a result of a popular Catholic revolution (beautifully captured by painter Gustave Wappers) against the Protestant Dutch king, Willem I, under which they had actually been made subject to by the Allies in 1814.

True, the sudden appearance of this new nation was very convenient to Britain and the European powers who still feared France, and was probably the reason why it was recognised so quickly by pretty much everyone except Willem, but that does not excuse the complete fabrication of a country's history.

Forgotten too, is the fact that, although Belgium sprang from a largely (though not exclusively) religiously-motivated uprising, it was forged into a secular, liberal and (by the standards of the time) democratic state under a constitutional monarch. Like the United States, it was founded on principles and ideals rather than on ethnic identity. Not too shabby for the early nineteenth century and certainly deserving of our respect.

Of course, today, Belgium is a very different place from the 1830s. A largely non-religious country, the ties that bound its French- and Dutch-speaking inhabitants are not what they once were and the now-federal state does not even have any pan-Belgian parties. This, together with a system of proportional representation for parliamentary elections, has contributed to numerous political crises of late and increasingly lengthy periods where there is no government at all.

The latest of these interregnums broke a new world record ten days ago, when it hit 249 days, trumping post-democracy Iraq's 248. But the question to ask is, is it really such a bad thing? After all, the foundations of Belgian society have not come crashing down, there is no looting and rioting in the streets, the buses and trains still run - things are carrying on as normal.

Perhaps every country ought to go for these periodic 'holidays' from government - it would certainly go a long way towards demonstrating just how pointless these endless, money-burning 'initiatives' and 'new deals' really are. Daniel Hannan suggested a very similar thing to expose the irrelevance of the European Union but this principle really could be applied to any government.

It is certainly needed in this part of the world. An unfortunate aspect of our political culture is that politicians are expected to constantly look busy and, as such, are encouraged to encroach further and further into our lives and spend ever more of our money on nonsense.

You may remember that, during the election, when Boris Johnson was refusing to be brow-beaten by Jeremy Paxman, Paxo used his get-out-of-jail-free card by retorting 'haven't you got a city to run?' Priggish as it is, this is an unanswerable question for a politician, so Boris shuffled off, dejected.

That Paxo was able to get away with this shows the sorry state of out political culture - decades of statism have led us into the terrible mental trap of assuming that, without the constant direction and supervision of politicians, our infrastructure and services would simply fall apart and that, consequently, all our problems are remediable by these great caesars.

It's a curiously Stalinist political outlook - "a light is always on in Stalin's window" as Russians were once told - but this is the type of (fictional) dedication we appear to expect from our politicians. There was a quite perplexing outcry in some circles, for example, when Boris revealed he would continue to write a weekly column for the Telegraph after he was elected mayor.

That this takes him probably an hour or two on a Sunday afternoon is irrelevant to these people - he was scandalously taking the time to do something unrelated to his position, which was apparently self-evidently damning.

Just as much tosh is the supposed shame of Nick Clegg forgetting he was 'supposed to be running the country' while David Cameron was in the middle east; instead going to Davos. It was not believed that he could do this from his Blackberry.

But why not? Did anyone notice society collapsing while the PM and his deputy were out of the country? Did the wheels of government suddenly grind to a screeching halt? Did Ed Miliband organise a Gaddafi-esque military coup? Of course not! Cameron and Clegg are not czars, caesars or kings and this country fought for centuries to set in stone the principle that the realm ought never to be run by one man.

So I say rejoice in lazy politicians! Take comfort in their absent-minded sense of duty! And delight in their inability to agree on a cabinet! Because if they're not in parliament, or in Number 10, they're also not doing either of two things: poking their noses into your business and burning your money. That, I'm sure you'll agree, is no bad thing at all.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Rome didn't fall in a day

The 'fall' of Rome in AD 476: a convenient but very dangerous myth
It plays very well into the European consciousness to imagine that Rome fell because of a series of invasions by uncivilised and ignorant barbarians, jealously invading a land of enlightenment and prosperity, thereby extinguishing civilisation for a thousand years.

And perhaps we cradle this belief because we feel the same thing is happening to us today. There is no shortage of people across the continent who would seek to pin European decline on invading hordes of Muslim 'barbarians', taking 'our jobs' and 'our women' and giving nothing in return but sharia law. That's certainly the sort of tripe you'll hear from the BNP in my patch for the Barnsley Central by-election, anyway.

But the truth is that, just as Rome was not built in a day, it didn't fall so quickly either. By AD 476 Roman society had already spent centuries destroying itself from the inside. One of the most easily recognisable signs of this was a steady erosion in the quality of the emperor's portrait on coinage. This begins from the fourth century and, by the beginning of the fifth century, the generic medieval blob style has already emerged.

Again, the Renaissance is often depicted as a 'return' to a Roman level of civilisation, with portraits drawn in a realistic style for the first time in a millenium. But these skills had already disappeared and Rome was also haemorrhaging, too, knowledge in the fields of science, philosophy, arts and economics.

A trend away from the laissez faire policies of the past to repeated debasement of the coinage, socialist prices and incomes policies and a strangling bureaucracy caused widespread poverty and hyperinflation. Cities were emptied as their citizens fled to the countryside seeking the protection of large landowners, thereby forming the beginnings of medieval feudalism.

From this perspective, the final sacking of Ravella (Rome had ceased to be the capital in AD 286) and the deposition of the last western emperor Romulus Augustus in AD 476, was nothing more than the straw which broke the camel's back - that final piece of the Jenga puzzle that brings the whole tottering structure crashing into a heap of rubble.

Of course Gibbon blamed Christian meekness, dogma and stubborn ignorance for this decline (also depicted in the highly recommendable film Agora). And through disastrous statist policies putting equality, redistribution and dumbing down above glory, prosperity and competition, the Romans of Late Antiquity had already gone a long way towards laying the foundations for medieval European society.

This is evidenced by the fact that, even after 476, the eastern Roman Empire continued to evolve, uninterrupted, into a recognisable medieval state until the Ottoman conquest of 1453. And, even in the west, the historical record shows the Roman Senate continued to exist under barbarian kingdoms until at least 603 - there was no sudden break from enlightenment to dark ages.

But what is frightening is that this dumbing down of society appears to be occurring in Britain today. And, most terrifying of all, it is doing so under a Conservative Prime Minister.

I never bothered to renew my membership of the Conservative party after the election and would be ashamed to now hold it. By some insanity we have ended up with a Conservative government acting like Brezhnev apparatchiks in making open threats to boardrooms over the percentage of women that sit on them.

A society that puts such a bizarre abstract concept above the right, and common sense, of private companies to make rational choices about who they see as the most qualified to lead them is headed for disaster. Lord Davies talks of 'a crisis in the boardroom of Britain.'  What crisis? The only crisis I can see is that of a government completely disregarding its constitutional limitations.

Even if, as Hay Group MD Lesley Wilkin says, 'a diverse leadership team is a more effective leadership team' surely that is for shareholders to decide? The government has no more moral or constitutional right to enforce this than it does, say, compulsory vitamin supplements or the banning of chocolate. They may or may not have a beneficial effect but both are entirely inappropriate fields for the government to be engaged in.

At the same time, useless teachers are 'recycled' by frustrated heads giving good references to get rid of them, because workers' rights have now risen in our priorities above that of our children's education.

Naturally, if this is allowed to continue, it will create a situation whereby the teaching stock gets worse and worse with each generation, in turn creating successive generations of children more feckless than the last. The not-unrelated matter of exams being dumbed down for political reasons is another deadly symptom of this decline in our civilisation.

It is worth keeping in mind that the imperial Indian Civil Service, which had one of the most difficult entry exams in British history, was staffed by approximately 1,000 people running an entire subcontinent. And at it's peak, the Roman Empire only employed about 150.

Uncompromisingly high standards are important to any society because they create the best kind of elitism - that from which no-one is barred but for which only the very best gain entry (either through examination, promotion, or off their own backs).

Once standards drop - whether from fevered notions of equality or otherwise - that society's decline is guaranteed. And, as the 'dark ages' showed, that is bad news for absolutely everyone.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Brussels could learn from 1707

The Acts of Union, 1707: unpopular in Scotland but respectful of Scottish institutions
Four years ago Britain marked three hundred years of union between those once old and bitter enemies, England and Scotland. The date commemorated perhaps the most significant turning point in the history of these isles but, like the rest of Gordon Brown's feeble attempts to define 'Britishness,' it fell flat on its face.

You'd be forgiven for having missed it. The only remotely remarkable thing about these 'celebrations' was a rather nicely designed £2 coin. The fact is the vast majority of both nation's citizens simply weren't interested.

And a substantial minority, it seems, were actively contemptuous. On May 3, a mere two days after the tricentenary of the Union, the SNP were elected the largest group in the Scottish Parliament pledging a referendum on Scottish independence and the dissolution of the Union.

A slap in the face, perhaps, but if the Union has failed to inspire much enthusiasm, least of all among Scots, it is because it has never been more than a marriage of convenience. James I & VI may have been obsessed with romantic notions of uniting his two realms but, a century later, it meant little more to England than a means of maintaining national security.

Just three years previously, the Scottish Parliament had pledged to choose a different king to the English following the death of the childless Anne and, with Louis XIV's power growing across the Channel, a potential revival of the auld alliance was a very serious matter indeed.

For the Scots of course, Union was a substantially more bitter - and even more necessary - pill to swallow. Their failed attempt to establish a world trade outpost in Panama had completely bankrupted what was an already poor country. The doomed Darien Colony had been a last, desperate grasp at prosperity and economic independence and the English, understanding this, offered extremely favourable terms. In this sense it is not altogether different from why Britain gravitated towards the EC after 1945.

But, while the Union ostensibly created an entirely new country from its constituent parts into the Kingdom of Great Britain, it is notable for the extent to which it allowed Scotland to continue to function as a separate entity.

This is where eurocrats could learn a few lessons. Far from obsessively pursuing 'harmonisation' within the new kingdom, the English were happy to allow the Scots to maintain their own distinct legal system as well as the Presbyterian nature of the Church of Scotland. And, although a single currency was introduced, the Bank of England's monopoly on printing banknotes was not extended to Scotland. All these Scottish idioms remain in place.

By contrast, the European Central Bank's insistance on printing all euro banknotes has led to the absurd banality of a range of nonexistent windows and bridges decorating the Union's currency and the motto of 'united in diversity' stands in stark contrast to Brussels' obsession with pan-Union uniformity in even the most trivial business of member states.

The Working Time Directive, for example, ignores the diverse working patterns across the continent and caused chaos in British hospitals. Also under threat are the English and Scottish legal systems which, from close to a millenium of uninterrupted development, differ drastically from those of European nations.

If the eurocrats in Brussels truly want a united, even federal, Europe (and I have no doubt that they do) they would do well to look at the example of 1707. Because, for all the apathy the 1707 Union may inspire among Englishmen and Scots, it has stood the test of more than three hundred years and remains remarkably stable to this day. Indeed, Brussels may find that turning a sceptical populace towards the idea of a united Europe may be a great deal easier with 'less Europe' than more.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The neocons were right about democracy

Revolution: neocons were right about democracy as a universal aspiration
How refreshing to hear former George W. Bush official Brad Blakeman give unequivocal support for the Egyptian revolutionaries.

In doing so he is setting himself apart from many of his fellow citizens, including a number of his former colleagues, who prefer to take a more ambiguous approach to what they euphemistically prefer to call a crisis.

There was of course a time when support for a people rising up against their tyrants was part and parcel of American patriotism - it is, after all, in the Constitution - but since at least the Cold War this has given way to a far more cynical and, frankly, imperialist realpolitik.

Bravo, then, to the Bushnik who stood up to the whiny New York Post columnist and espoused principle over expedience. He can't have had much of a hand in the Patriot Act methinks.

But if the American (and, indeed, European) reaction to the revolution has seemed a little hot and cold, the message it sends back to the United States is just as schizophrenic.

What Americans will be pleased about is that such spontaneous uprisings show democracy and the rule of law are not exclusively 'western' values but are aspired to by peoples across the globe and at all stages of development.

This will certainly help them in their bargaining with the Chinese, who often argue 'cultural differences' mean democracy is not for them (despite being very popular indeed in neighbouring Han territories Hong Kong and Taiwan).

But the sheer speed at which revolutionary sentiment has blown like a sandstorm across the Middle East from Tunisia, through Egypt, Yemen and, now, Syria, demonstrates loud and clear to America that Arabs can throw off their tyrants themselves; they do not require the help of what they still regard as an imperialist occupying force.

Alas, this appears to have evaded the Spectator's Coffee House blogger Daniel Korski, who remains woefully ignorant of attitudes towards the United States in the Middle East.

In his article this morning on Al Jazeera, he jumps to the spectacularly ill-considered conclusion that, because the network was hostile to what it unapologetically called an imperialist invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is an implicitly antidemocratic organisation.

What Korski has not even considered is that Arabs are fully capable of being democrats to the hilt while still being thoroughly hostile to the American presence and influence in the region.

In fact, to judge by statements made by ordinary protesters to TV crews in Cairo, the Egyptian people make no distinction between the adoption of democracy and an end to what they see as their nation's subordination to the US and Israel.

As a supporter of Zionism, I cannot support this hostility but, as a democrat, I can no more ignore the fact that is the will of the Egyptian people and ought to be respected as such. And sheepish right-wingers would do well to keep in mind that ignoring the wishes of Arab populations for strategic reasons is no different to Brussels' brazen disregard for inconvenient Irish referendum results.

There will be no justice in the world while the citizens of one nation are forcefully enslaved to satisfy the foreign policy goals of another - the Americans cannot have it both ways. They can either seriously commit themselves to Middle Eastern democracy and prepare for the possibility of less friendly governments, or they can continue with business as usual and bring another great evil into the world, as they did when they conspired with the Shah of Iran to bring down the popular PM Mohammed Mosaddegh; setting in motion a chain of events that would culminate in Ayatollah Khomeini successfully riding the wave of revolution that erupted in 1978.

Ironically, democracy as a universal aspiration is an essentially neoconservative argument and was very much the underlying premise behind Francis Fukuyama's 'End of History' and the Project for a New American Century movement in the 1990s - that, with communism defeated, the way was clear for man's final political evolution and the triumph of liberal democracy.

As the 1990s wore on and the movement culminated in its horrific Iraqi reality, it was widely discredited as a failure. But what the recent Arab revolutions demonstrate is that, far from being wrong, its proponents faltered only in their impatience in expecting subject peoples to spontaneously and immediately shake off their chains (and, indeed, to be grateful to the Americans for doing it for them).

Any student of the subject will tell you that revolutions, when they do occur, only do so under very specific conditions. A sincere and widely-held desire for change is not enough in itself for people to take to the streets - they will tolerate a surprisingly high degree of injustice, deprivation and frustration before reaching the critical exploding point.

If you were a cynical sort of fellow, you might say that this all goes to show the Iraq invasion was an imperialist war for oil and Washington has never been concerned with the liberty of Arab citizens. But whatever your view of the war, as Fukuyama himself put it, in 2006 a change of tack on behalf on Washington is most definitely needed, particularly in regard to its present condition as a world power;

"What is needed now are new ideas, neither neoconservative nor realist, for how America is to relate to the rest of the world - ideas that retain the neoconservative belief in the universality of human rights, but without its illusions about the efficacy of American power and hegemony to bring these ends about."